Editorial: I-1351’s goals don’t justify its high cost
Washington cannot afford Initiative 1351.
A fiscal note released Wednesday by the Office of Financial Management estimates the class size reductions required by I-1351 would add $4.7 billion to the cost of K-12 education in Washington through 2019. But that’s an understatement.
The initiative’s class size standards would require the hiring of 7,453 teachers, but it makes no account for the cost of providing classrooms for those teachers.
The OFM also estimates I-1351 will add 17,081 school-based staff – more than double the number of new teachers – and 1,000 central office staff, at a combined cost exceeding that for new teacher salaries. That spending is built into the $4.7 billion estimate.
Not included: The $1.3 billion committed this budget biennium to reducing K-3 class sizes down to 25.23 students, with even smaller numbers in high-poverty schools like some in Spokane. Adding the 160 classrooms just to comply with the Legislature’s K-3 mandate could cost the Spokane School District an estimated $175 million.
I-1351 cuts those sizes further, down to 17 through grade 3, or 15 in high-poverty schools. And it continues the subtraction from grade 4 through high school. No classes could have more than 25 students – 23 in high-poverty schools, except 22 for grade four.
The Spokane district has no estimates for the additional classrooms I-1351 would require.
The OFM also estimates that I-1351 would empower the state’s 256 school districts to ask voters for an additional $1.9 billion in supplemental levies.
Washington classes are among the largest in the country, a shame for a state that says it prizes education. Most research concludes that students benefit from smaller classrooms and more individual time with teachers. The Legislature has appropriated the money to hire teachers and shrink lower-grade classes.
For higher grades, the studies are less conclusive, and lawmakers have so far not addressed what needs there might be for middle school and senior high school students.
But they have increased graduation requirements and are working toward other measures mandated by comprehensive 2009 school reform legislation.
Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court, in its 2012 McCleary ruling, has assumed the role of education overlord. The justices have threatened to find the Legislature in contempt if it does not amply fund education, as the state constitution requires.
Satisfying the court that lawmakers are taking the court seriously was expected to take around $2 billion beyond the $1 billion added two years ago.
I-1351 backers say the measure does no more than reinforce the McCleary ruling, but setting rigid class sizes hamstrings the Legislature and robs districts of the flexibility they need to assess and satisfy the needs of their unique students.
And they can ignore, as lawmakers cannot, the effect higher K-12 spending will have on other state responsibilities. For example, the costs of complying with another court ruling that the state cannot warehouse mental health patients.
Although state revenue projections have been improving, I-1351 will be too costly.